Tuesday, September 25, 2007

September 11 Was the Threshold

From “The Coming Urban Terror” in City Journal:

For the first time in history…a majority of the world’s population is living in urban environments. Cities-efficient hubs connecting international flows of people, energy, communications, and capital-are thriving in our global economy as never before. However, the same factors that make cities hubs of globalization also make them vulnerable to small-group terror and violence.

Over the last few years, small groups’ ability to conduct terrorism has shown radical improvements in productivity-their capacity to inflict economic, physical, and moral damage. These groups, motivated by everything from gang membership to religious extremism, have taken advantage of easy access to our global superinfrastructure, revenues from growing illicit commercial flows, and ubiquitously available new technologies to cross the threshold necessary to become terrible threats. September 11, 2001, marked their arrival at that threshold.

Unfortunately, the improvements in lethality that we have already seen are just the beginning. The arc of productivity growth that lets small groups terrorize at ever-higher levels of death and disruption stretches as far as the eye can see. Eventually, one man may even be able to wield the destructive power that only nation-states possess today. It is a perverse twist of history that this new threat arrives at the same moment that wars between states are receding into the past. Thanks to global interdependence, state-against-state warfare is far less likely than it used to be, and viable only against disconnected or powerless states.

However, these terrorist groups - or lone terrorists, for that matter - don’t get their funding from the air. There are terrorist states: Iran is a major funder of terrorists. So is Syria. So is Saudi Arabia. In this sense, we have moved from direct wars between states to proxies fighting clandestine wars against legitimate states.

The author is right that the density of urban areas leaves them more vulnerable to attack. This is ironic, when one thinks that cities originally came together as a way to provide safety and fend off attacks.

Have we then outgrown cities? Will they become irrelevant with the distribution of energy as we move away from oil? And move we will: check out The Bottomless Well: The twilight of Fuel, The Virtue of Waste and Why we will Never Run Out Of Energy to understand where the 21st century is headed.

But many of their solutions reside in the future; not too far off, but not present enough to quell the current chaos. Mr. Robb notes our present vulnerability and problems:
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Most of the networks that we rely on for city life-communications, electricity, transportation, water-are overused, interdependent, and extremely complex. They developed organically as what scholars in the emerging field of network science call “scale-free networks,” which contain large hubs with a plethora of connections to smaller and more isolated local clusters. Such networks are economically efficient and resistant to random failure-but they are also extremely vulnerable to intentional disruptions, as Albert-Laszlo Barabasi shows in his important book Linked: The New Science of Networks. In practice, this means that a very small number of attacks on the critical hubs of a scale-free network can collapse the entire network. Such a collapse can occasionally happen by accident, when random failure hits a critical node; think of the huge Northeast blackout of 2003, which caused $6.4 billion in damage.

As do the authors of “Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy,” Mr. Robb sees hope in the decentralization of networks. We can’t afford them anymore:

In almost all cases, cities can defend themselves from their new enemies through effective decentralization. To counter systems disruption, decentralized services-the capability of smaller areas within cities to provide backup services, at least on a temporary basis-could radically diminish the harmful consequences of disconnection from the larger global grid. In New York, this would mean storage or limited production capability of backup electricity, water, and fuel, with easy connections to the delivery grid-at the borough level or even smaller. These backups would then provide a means of restoring central services rapidly after a failure.

He has a similar solution to the growing problem of gangs. The evolution of policing practices is already beginning:

…local innovation-supplemented by a marketplace in goods and services that improve security, detection, monitoring, and so on-is likely to develop responses to threats quickly and effectively. Other localities will copy those responses that prove successful.

The present is pretty chaotic, but that has always seemed the case. Threats arise out of the discontent, rage and envy of those who consider themselves the outsiders, the outlaws. So it has always been. Taming the human heart requires human ingenuity. And if the latter seems only to occur as a reaction, that is only to be expected.

It is obvious that our safety does not, cannot, lie in centralized power. Homeland Security is anything but secure. We must let bureaucracies atrophy if we are to be safe. Centralized massive anything brings more problems than it solves.

Read Mr. Robb’s complete essay. It is thought-provoking without being alarmist.


Joshua said...

As you may know, Robb also has his own blog, Global Guerillas, and a recently published book Brave New War, both of which deal in more depth with the decentralization and privatization of warfare. He knows his stuff, and it's both frightening and fascinating.

rickl said...

Now if only we had a political party that believed in limited, decentralized government.

Well, I can dream, anyway.